Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Anne M. Donnellan, PhD; Steven A. Gelb, PhD; Diane C. Hatton, DNSc


academic success, Autism Spectrum Disorders--ASDs, Grounded theory, qualitative, supportive relationships, Special education


This study explored 17 dyads of academically successful people with autism and individuals whom they identified as supportive. Four research questions guided this study: 1) How do individuals with autism and the people who support them describe their relationship? Specifically, how was the relationship established, how has it changed, what are the benefits and challenges, what works and what does not, and how is the relationship maintained? 2) From the perspective of both the individuals with autism and the supporting individuals, how do their relationships provide support for the individual with autism? 3) How does the mode of communication influence the supportive relationship? How do negotiations take place? How are conflicts resolved? 4) In what ways, if at all, are the relationships intimate, reciprocal, and/or mutual? Qualitative methods, including in-depth interviews, participant observations, and document analysis, were used to study these supportive relationships. The purpose of the study was to develop a substantive grounded theory regarding supportive relationships within the lives of individuals with autism. A dynamic model of supportive relationships emerged, with trust, unity, and support as three core categories of these relationships. The data suggest that the quality of the relationship between the individual with autism and the support provider can be a critical factor within effective support. From Leo Kanner's first description of autism in 1943 to the present, impairments in social development, interaction, and relationships have been considered pathognomonic to the disorder. Moreover, the professional literature and the diagnostic criteria for autism describe individuals with autism as lacking social and emotional reciprocity and having an inability to develop and maintain social relationships. Thus, personal relationships have seldom been viewed as sources of support and growth for people with autism. In this study, participants described intimate, mutual, and reciprocal supportive relationships. These findings suggest that there is much yet to be learned about the social world of individuals with autism. Further research within this topic is likely to be beneficial to individuals with autism, practitioners, parents, and others.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies